by Daniel Harrell
Chances are that at some point in your life you’ve been asked to name the one thing you’d want to have with you if ever you were stranded on a deserted island. This is called a “values clarification” question. Taking for granted that everybody begins by answering they’d want a motor boat with a full tank of gas, what else would you include? What’s most important? Jesus gets asked a values clarification question in this morning’s familiar passage from Mark’s gospel. It’s more specifically, a “commandments clarification” question. “Of all the commandments we’re supposed to obey as followers of God, which one comes first?” It’s a question that also shows up in Matthew and Luke, where, like here, Jesus was coming off one of his ongoing disputes with the Pharisees. An Old Testament law professor of sorts, known as a scribe, overheard the ruckus. Matthew and Luke portray the professor as a bit of a trickster who tries to trap Jesus. But Mark casts as a straight shooter, which we presume because Jesus shoots him a straight answer, something Jesus almost never does to Pharisaical types.
The professor’s question made some sense. There were understood to be 613 commandments in Old Testament Law (the law being the first five books of the Old Testament known as the Torah). Keeping track of all 613 was problematic enough for lawyers, which means everybody else hardly had a chance. So if you could only obey one, which one would it be?
If this had been a trick question, Jesus would have dodged it by asking a trick question of his own, or by telling a parable that made the professor look bad. But here Jesus simply replies, “The first is this: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’” This was no surprise. Everybody knew the first command. From Deuteronomy 6 and called the shema, from the Hebrew word meaning listen, the shema was acknowledged by all Jews as most important. Observant Jews hang it on their front doors, recite it twice a day and strive to make it the last words they say before they die. I remember burying a sweet saint who as a Christian sang the shema three times a day and had it sung at his memorial service too. He said he sang it so as not forget to do it, since as we all know, loving God is one of those things that if not done deliberately, never happens by itself.
The surprise was Jesus adding a second commandment which in Matthew’s gospel he labeled as of equal importance to the first. “‘Love your neighbor as yourself’”Jesus said. “There is no commandment greater than these.” While it may look as if Jesus’ answer was a tricky one in that he named two commandments when the professor only asked for one, note that Jesus only states one command. One verb. Love. It’s one verb with three objects. Love God. Love your neighbor. Love yourself.
OK, so Jesus doesn’t really command that you love yourself. Loving yourself doesn’t really need a commandment. Most of us do it without being told, if not out of selfishness then at least out of self-preservation. Loving yourself unduly may be unseemly, but here Jesus speaks of self-concern rather self-conceit. Just as you take time for yourself, take interest in yourself, want what’s good for yourself and make excuses for yourself―so you should take time for your neighbor, take interest in your neighbor, want what’s good for your neighbor and cut your neighbor slack. What’s surprising about Jesus inclusion of this commandment is that while “love God” shows up in Deuteronomy on the heels of the Ten Commandments and a majestic speech by Moses, “love your neighbor” is oddly and obscurely buried in the middle of Leviticus. No one would have thought it as similarly important. Especially since, “love your neighbor” was buried alongside a number of somewhat wacky Levitical commands about not mating different kinds of animals, not planting your field with two kinds of seeds, not wearing clothes woven from two kinds of material and not sleeping with a woman who is a slave girl promised to another man.
Most of you know by now that I wrote a book about Leviticus entitled How To Be Perfect. Jesus said we’re supposed to be perfect as our heavenly father is perfect, and obeying Leviticus was long understood as the way to do that. In some ways the book is autobiographical, it’s about a month I spent abiding by the book of Leviticus with 19 other people. Not that it made us perfect. Which may be why my book proved to be less popular than Leviticus itself.
While falling short of perfection, nobody’s perfect, I will say that for an entire month my tribe of virtual Levites and I did manage to refrain from mating different kinds of animals, from planting mixed seeds, from wearing mixed fabrics and from sleeping from slave girls promised to other men. Granted, these were fairly easy commands to keep (even the clothing one). Nobody in the group was a breeder or a farmer or, thankfully, knew any slaves. But everybody had neighbors and loving our neighbors was not so easy for reasons that are familiar to us all. Loving others like you love you yourself comes about as naturally as loving God, without even mentioning Jesus’ caveat that you love your enemies too. Due to the steep degree of difficulty loving your neighbor presents, Luke’s gospel has the professor following up by asking Jesus for further clarification. Exactly “who is my neighbor?” he wanted to know, whereby Jesus, in more typical Jesus-fashion, told with the parable of the Good Samaritan―which predictably made the Jewish professor look bad along with the rest of us too.
We tend to interpret the Good Samaritan as a parable about social justice: It’s not right for anyone devoted to God--in this case a priest and a Levite--to bypass a person in need--in this case a fellow Jew assaulted by robbers and left by the road. That a despised Samaritan helps out and goes above and beyond what anybody would have been expected to do is what gives the story its sting. The famed Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard defined justice as each person giving and getting their due, it’s all about what’s rightly yours and mine. But love, he wrote, blissfully confuses all of that, erasing the distinction between yours and mine. While a distinctive you and an I must remain for there to be love, the yours and the mine must vanish. Thus the Good Samaritan is not a story about social justice as much as it’s a story about love.
The lawyer had asked, “Who is my neighbor?” a justice question about yours and mine. But Jesus gave a love answer. A man in the wrong place at the wrong time, gets saved by the wrong person just in time. By centering his reply on the kind acts of a Samaritan, whom faithful Jews would have considered a heretic and an enemy, Jesus underscored the fact that righteous belief never substitutes for compassionate action. “To love your neighbor” is not about correctly defining the object, “neighbor,” but about rightly doing the verb, “love.”
“The Bible is very easy to understand,” Kierkegaard wrote, “but we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand the Bible because we know very well that the minute we understand we are obliged to act accordingly.” We swindle ourselves this whenever we treat Jesus’ words as idealistic guidelines to aim for, or worse, an intentional high bar we can never get reach so as to recognize our need for grace. Nobody’s perfect, so why bother trying? Just confess your sin, get your grace and get on with what you were going to do anyway, and then come back next Sunday and do it again, like hamsters on an ever-spinning wheel. Leave actual obedience on the high shelf out of reach, or better, simply toss it aside labeled derisively as “works.”
Not that salvation ever comes to us by works, it doesn’t. It’s a grace only proposition. But you still have to do something to show that you’re saved. As Brian told us last Sunday, what you believe is what you do. Jesus wondered out loud, “Why do you call me Lord and yet not do what I say?” And then, “If you truly do love me, you will keep my commandments.” This is the link between loving the Lord and loving your neighbor (noting that for Christians Jesus is Lord). As the apostle John would later put it, “anyone who does not love his neighbor whom he sees, cannot love God whom he has not seen.” “Christian love is not high, ethereal, heavenly love,” Kierkegaard wrote, “but love descended from heaven to earth. It humbles itself, as did Christ, in order to love the person it sees just as it sees them. This as our duty. The task is not to find a lovable person, but to find lovable whomever you see.” To see is to love. The priest and the Levite both saw the assaulted man by the road, but neither loved him. The despised Samaritan, when he saw the man, loved him by bandaging his wounds and taking care of all his expenses.
“The matter is quite simple,” Kierkegaard wrote. It does begin with loving God; or at least it begins with responding to God’s love. “We love because God first loved us,” the apostle John, “He loved us so much that he gave his only begotten Son.” God gave everything to us who deserve nothing, and therefore God justly demands that we give everything we have to him. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind.” Do this and you give all you have to God, which you're glad to do because the Lord saved your life. But here’s the thing, Kierkegaard concluded: God who justly demands everything from us needs nothing from us. Therefore, the everything that you’ve devoted to God is now freed up to devote to your neighbor. Same verb. Different subject. Loving God (who is easy to love) is what makes loving your neighbor (who can be hard) and loving your enemy (which is impossible) possible because now you have so much love to give.
Granted, you may not necessarily buy the premise that God is easy to love. God is demanding. God is invisible. and he’s hard to hug. Which is why he eventually showed up in person. But even if you could still see Jesus yourself, that wouldn’t necessarily make loving him easier since to love him would still mean doing what he said: No worrying, no hate, no lust, no lying, turning the other cheek, going the extra mile, forgiving without limit, loving your neighbor, loving your enemy--no way you’re getting off that hamster wheel without a serious change of heart. Therefore Jesus added the following: “If you love me you’ll keep my commandments, and my Father will love you, and we will come to you and make our home in you.” This is a remarkable assertion, and it’s a promise fulfilled. Way back in Ezekiel the Lord said of his people, “I will give you a new heart, and put a new spirit within you; I will remove your hard heart of stone and give you a new heart of flesh, so that you may follow my statutes and keep my commands and obey them. Then they shall be my people, and I will be their God.” And so we are by the Sprit of God who dwells in us. Therefore if you don’t love the Lord and your neighbor as yourself, it’s certainly no longer not because you can’t.
The Old Testament professor graded Jesus an A for his answer. “You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.” This was a significant concession from one whose whole life was entirely built around burnt offerings and sacrifices. So significant that Jesus told the professor that he was not far from the Kingdom of God. How far is not far was left unsaid. We never know whether the professor makes it in. And that’s probably intentional. While there is a confidence that comes with the assurance of salvation, there is a complacency too. “If you love me you will obey my commands,” Jesus said, and to the extent that we don’t is the measure of our own distance from his Kingdom.